Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Iconic characters tower over our pop-cultural landscape. From Dracula to Tarzan, they stand the test of time to become recognizable figures to generation after generation. Sometimes, they kick-start entire genres and subgenres of fiction, and usually, dozens of imitators will follow in their wake, cementing their legacy as the first of their kind. Creating one is no certainly no easy task, but it’s doable if you understand what the ingredients are and how to use them effectively.
What is an iconic character?
A lot of people confuse ‘iconic’ with ‘popular.’ It’s an easy mistake to make, because iconic characters do have to be popular, but their popularity has to be durable. For instance, Games of Thrones’ Jon Snow is a popular and internationally recognizable character today, but will he still be in ten, twenty, or fifty years’ time? Only time will tell.An iconic character is often larger than any one story they appear in. Click To Tweet
An iconic character is essentially someone whose presence is so desirable that it independently elevates their story. Someone who you want to spend time with and go on any adventure with. They don’t always have to be relatable, or even heroic – just really interesting, and by extension, probably really cool. They might not even be your main character. Han Solo is a far more compelling character than Luke Skywalker, even without a lightsaber and magical space powers.
The originator factor
It’s hard not to think about superheroes when discussing iconic characters, especially given their current resurgence in popularity. As characters of a visual medium, they quite literally come with iconography that makes them easily memorable. But, not all of them achieve that status. It’s still all down to whether or not they possess the right qualities as characters and resonate with new generations.
As with most icons, a lot of this boils down to the ‘originator’ factor. Batman and Superman set the precedent as the first of their kind, with virtually every superhero since having to measure up to either one. Though consistent reinvention and good storytelling has maintained their status, their place in history is assured. You could say the same thing about Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Darcy, and Frankenstein’s monster.
So, what can you learn from this? Well, it may seem obvious, but uniqueness – as tricky as it is to pull off these days – is a good place to start. Harness the power of the ‘originator’ and your character could really stand the test of time. Having said that, even Bats and Supes didn’t come out of nowhere. Superman is a modern-day god from ancient mythology – Hercules with an alien twist and an undercurrent of Jewish diaspora. Batman, on the other hand, is far more modern – a cocktail of Zorro, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Though they’re as different as day and night, the key thing to draw from both is that an eclectic mix of ingredients can taste really good together, and produce something that seems brand new.
The copycat test
The real test is then to see how ripe for copying your character is. An originator is only an originator if there can be copycat versions. Hence why we have an entire superhero genre, rather than just two comic book characters who happen to have a penchant for capes and justice. Simplicity is usually the key to this. Batman and Superman can be boiled down to pretty basic elements and still be recognizable in personality, motives, and appearance.
Think about whether or not you think your character is ripe for imitation. Have you created a unique (as possible) formula that others will wish they’d thought up?Iconic characters need to be simple, timeless, and memorable.Click To Tweet
The copycat test is also about flexibility. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a mysterious, immortal man who longs for human blood and human company. Stoker’s haunting characterization remains powerful to this day.
The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.
– Bram Stoker, Dracula
The vampire myth he helped establish survives to this day, because it only needs a couple of characteristics to be recognizable, leaving lots of space for constant reinterpretation. Dracula himself – the originator – remains relevant because of the pretenders to his throne.
Reinventing an archetype
The task of creating a brand new archetype is of course a daunting and difficult one. So, how about taking a well-known one and reinventing it, instead? By this, I don’t just mean taking a stock character type and giving them a unique quirk. She’s a forensic pathologist, but she solves cases using only her sense of smell! Premises like that may be fun, but not usually enough to cement a lasting legacy (though it can happen).
If we stick with superheroes as examples, Alan Moore’s masked detective, Rorschach from Watchmen pushes the Batman archetype to its logical extreme to produce a really compelling narrator. More specifically, Rorschach’s character was directly lifted from another DC comics detective, The Question, who Moore sought to originally use for the story, but was denied. The Question himself is already a pretty hardcore superhero detective in the Batman mold, so Rorschach’s lineage is clear. You can hear echoes of the Caped Crusader at his most vengeful in his diary entries.
Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down, and whisper “No.”
Rorshach’s journal, October 12th, 1985
– Alan Moore, Watchmen
All the right elements are there. He has a distinctive way of speaking, a distinctive costume, and simple motives without being a simple character. You instantly get a good idea of who he is from that one excerpt alone, yet there are more layers to discover that make him captivating.
Despite fitting comfortably into a well-established ‘type’, Rorschach manages to stick in the reader’s mind by smashing the perceived limits of that type, behaving in ways that marked him out as more ideologically and practically extreme than his forebears.
Extremity isn’t the only way to go, but in this instance it offered a fresh approach. It’s also worth noting that Rorschach is heavily bound up in objectivism and examines the Batman archetype through that lens. This is a tried and tested way of creating an iconic character – using an established philosophical discipline to explore a familiar character ‘type’ – and something that works especially well with pulp characters, who tend to make complex systems of belief more heightened and engaging.Marrying a pulp archetype to an unusual philosophy can produce an iconic character.Click To Tweet
Many readers, for example, can’t quite let go of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently, a ‘holistic’ detective who claims he simply allows the fundamental forces of the universe to play out and ‘solve’ any given situation. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter, in contrast, is a serial killer raised with a strict set of rules that only allow him to prey on other killers, without necessarily imbuing him with actual empathy.
Both characters represent a reliable recipe for an icon – a character dedicated to an easily understandable goal but motivated to go about it according to unusual (but consistent) logic. As a fictional vigilante, Batman was nothing new, but a fictional vigilante who did it all dressed as a bat was something special. Likewise, Rorschach broke from the idea of vigilante superheroes as moral, balanced, and just, instead representing an unhinged, unilateral aggressor whose ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ didn’t necessarily correlate with those of the reader.
Memorable versus iconic
That being said, as memorable as Rorschach is, he obviously hasn’t managed to reach the same status as Batman. Certainly not yet, anyway. The hard truth is, creating new iconic characters today is a very difficult task. Creating cult characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Katniss Everdeen is possible, but those that we can truly call iconic – ones that defy medium and genre to be universally recognizable and influential – are pushing their 50th, 75th and even 100th anniversaries. Arguably, the only iconic character to have been created relatively recently is Harry Potter. Before that, characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones fit the description comfortably.
So, what does Harry Potter have that a character like Rorscach doesn’t? Other than, you know, using wands instead of toilet seats to beat their enemies. The things they share are tragic origin stories, unique physical traits (Harry has the lightning-bolt scar, Rorschach has the ink-blot mask) and the grit to push them to achieve insurmountable odds, despite significant flaws. But, what pushes Harry up a tier is probably accessibility.
Moore’s Watchmen is a cynical meta-commentary on both the superhero genre and the cultural climate of the 1980s. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an unironic, ‘good vs. evil’ fantasy world of pure escapism. With barely any references to pop culture or technology, the wizarding world isn’t tied to a specific time or place, and Harry is distinct enough to be unforgettable while flexible enough to have cross-generation appeal. Harry is therefore immediately accessible to any given audience at any given time, presenting no barriers to the reader’s appreciation of the emotions and ideas he embodies.
It’s worth noting how often iconic characters are written for younger readers. This isn’t because they’re merely ‘simpler’, but because they’re more likely to be larger than life, connect directly with big, relatable ideas, and be available to the widest possible readership. Even those iconic characters who aren’t meant for younger readers – such as Dracula and Hannibal Lecter – cut through reader maturity to a potent vein of fear or triumph that makes them particularly vivid on an emotional level.
Not every story needs an iconic character
This is something important to consider. Books like The Da Vinci Code arguably have a compelling plot led by a not-so-compelling hero. You want to go on the journey, but you’re not really bothered whether it’s Dr. Robert Langdon or SpongeBob SquarePants who goes on it with you. (Scratch that: I definitely have a preference.)Not every story is begging for an iconic hero, and some are better without.Click To Tweet
In that kind of story, the plot is the star, the characters take a backseat, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
True icons stand alone
Iconic characters should be accessible to a wide readership, with simple goals and a definable philosophy guiding their actions. If they can be visually unique, that’s useful, but it’s far more important that they have immediate presence and import. The more context and foreknowledge a reader needs to appreciate your character, the less likely you’re writing an icon. The same isn’t necessarily true of the story they appear in – these can be far more complex than the iconic hero who inhabits them – but will help create an iconic hero who ‘works’ even if they’re dropped into a different story.
Because of an iconic character’s unique relationship with story, it’s often a good idea to avoid arcs that resolve what makes them special. Check out Does Every Story Need A Character Arc? for advice on this (and another appearance from Rorschach). For more helpful advice, you can also try This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters, for advice on the type of cast that suits an icon, and Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write A Bestseller, for advice on the types of ideas that society is always looking for in its art.
Is there an iconic character that you think defines what makes icons work, or a ‘famous’ character that stops short of being an icon? Let me know in the comments.